Biblical religions and animal use – a critical biblical-theological and church-history approach to assessing the idea of vegan diet

(by Joachim Elschner-Sedivy, Lic.Theol., Munich, Germany, October 16, 2020)

As to the topic of human nutrition, Torah, the Jewish law (the „Pentateuch“ or „Five Books of Moses“), is characterized by three steps of argumentation. First step: In Genesis 1,29, humans are clearly assigned plant-based nutrition.

Second step: In Genesis 4,1-16, the children of the first human couple are portrayed in a competition concerning right sacrifice. Cain has become a farmer, while his brother Abel has become a herdsman. This reflects a primordial cultural tension which was constitutive for the come-about of „Israel“. YHWH refuses Cain’s offering of grain (which resembles most pagan cult customs in early Israel’s vicinity), but accepts Abel’s offering of meat instead. Reason: Looked at critically-historically (and meanwhile even archeologically), the worship of the godhead called YHWH originated from a nomadic culture in north-western Arabia („Midian“). After the Cain-and-Abel affair, to include meat into human nutrition becomes the consequence of Israel’s sacrificial practice and theory. The first action Noah performs after the flood is an animal sacrifice (Genesis 8,20-22); so, the direct and narrow connection between cult sacrifice and meat diet in the culture of ancient Israel is obvious. But this doesn’t work without restrictions. Even for a nomad, meat is a luxury food, and boundless pleasurable consumption most obviously has always been perceived as something at least vaguely opposed to the religious spirit. This is why religious food laws come in, the first one of which is the Noahite prohibition of the consumption of blood (Genesis 9,1-17). Reason: In ancient „physiology“, the blood was regarded the „seat of life“; consequently, to consume another being’s blood resembles a magical practice. In consequent monotheism, however, magic must be totally forbidden; every act of magic, even of „benevolent“ magic, is a heresy, because magic structurally always implies that some area of life is deprived of the supreme control of the One God. Magic is completely anti-biblical. – Today, of course, we know scientifically that the blood is not the „seat of life“. Scientifically we don’t know what the „seat of life“ is, but we know that the blood is just a bodily organ like the other bodily organs. And there is no convincing religious reason whatsoever to stick to an outdated understanding of physiology. So, either we may eat meat or we may not, but theologically further specifications about this certainly do not need to be made any longer.

The fact in itself is certainly amazing – and one should not miss to meditate on it – that the Israelites obviously assessed it necessary to develop a very special and very strong legitimation for the consumption of meat by strictly linking it to cult sacrifice. That fact alone reveals a very strong vegetarian-inclined trait in fundamental consciousness, I’d say. And the cult link caused severe practical life problems which give us solid proof that this need for moral legitimation was not just a lofty theory. After the Israelites’ return from Babylonian Exile, following 538 BCE, decision was made – either by the new Israelite authorities or by their new suzerain, the Persian Great King, that for all future there should be but one single Israelite temple, in Jerusalem, and nowhere else. Even for a majority of the Jews (from that time on the Israelites are called Jews) who lived in the land of Palestine this new situation caused problems with the reachability of the temple. But in addition to this, in critical-historical reality a majority of the descendants of the exiled continued to live in the places of their exile (which had not necessarily been bad places, for the exiled ones had been the „Upper Ten Thousand“ and had predominantly been treated as noble hostages), thus from now on turning the lands of „exile“ into the lands of „diaspora“, and these diaspora Jews even represented an absolute majority of all Jews for all coming Jewish history, and probably even already from 538 BCE onwards so. All these diaspora Jews had virtually no chance to come to the temple more frequently than at best for the three annual pilgrimage festivals of Passover, Shavuot and Sukkoth, which subsequently became instituted for that reason. So, think: What about a slice of roast beef on your bagel, if you happen to be a diaspora Jew? Catch the plane to Tel Aviv early in the morning in order to be back with the kosher meat for dinner? This is why the Deuteronomists felt pushed to expressly solve the problem pretty quickly after the commencement of their law code like this: „Yet whenever you desire you may slaughter and eat meat within any of your towns…“ (Deuteronomy 12,15) The fact that they felt such urgency and priority to settle this issue shows that this was not a minor or purely academic squabbling.

And this problem continues well into the New Testament. In the communities he founded, Paul the Apostle was confronted with the practical problem that the liberalism in table fellowship, which Pauline Christians were called to practice as a typical element of following the example of Christ, led to situations in which Christians were invited into the houses of their pagan friends, and whenever meat was served there, the Christian guest uncomfortably had to suspect that the one who had sold it on the market might have had obtained it from some pagan temple. Paul solved the problem in a „don’t-ask-don’t-tell“ manner: „‚All things are lawful‘, but not all things are beneficial. ‚All things are lawful‘, but not all things build up. Do not seek your own advantage, but that of the other. Eat whatever is sold in the meat market without raising any question on the ground of conscience, for ‚the earth and its fullness are the LORD’s‘. If an unbeliever invites you to a meal and you are disposed to go, eat whatever is set before you without raising any question on the ground of conscience. But if someone says to you, ‚This has been offered in sacrifice‘, then do not eat it, out of consideration for the one who informed you, and for the sake of conscience – I mean the other’s conscience, not your own. For why should my liberty be subject to the judgment of someone else’s conscience? If I partake with thankfulness, why should I be denounced because of that for which I give thanks? So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do everything for the glory of God. Give no offense to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God.“ (1Corinthians 10,23-32) This also gives some valuable general clue as for how to handle the vegan question as a Christian – independent from whether you personally feel drawn to veganism or not.

A bit of a foray: Looking at „step 1“ and „step 2“ being presented in the same book of the Bible – the canonically first one -, there is certainly some need to discuss this odd argumentative strategy in Genesis. It’s probably important to understand, that, despite having been placed first in the canonical order of biblical books, Genesis is not a particularly old book compared to other biblical books; rather the opposite is the case. As usual in the history of historiography, all the still firmly pre-modern chronicler-like historians started from arguments drawn from an epoch which was still pretty much recent history for them, and then subsequently worked their way back to the beginning of the world. This is why the redaction of Genesis was already confronted with a multitude of different and contradicting traditions and was left with the task to make sense and concordance of a colorful picture of diverse sources. Clues hinting to this are plenty of anachronistic features in the book of Genesis (can’t go into the details here). End of foray.

Third step (not in Genesis): Through the mouths of the Deuteronomistic (i.e. „non-priestly“) prophets, YHWH finally opts against gory sacrifices and declares that he wants the spiritual sacrifice of the faithful’s own heart instead (Hoseah 6,6; Isaiah 1,11-13; Jeremiah 6,20; Psalm 40,7; Psalm 51,18-19). Especially with regard to the vegan question, this move is particularly wide open to interpretation.

The historical Jesus of Nazareth, as far as we can reconstruct his authentic personality at all, was a radical Deuteronomist. Nevertheless, he clearly did not advise his followers to illustrate their theological standpoint via any practice of vegetarianism or veganism; rather he clearly regarded it as more important to demonstrate the worldly freedom of the true faithful. This is shown by many passages in the gospels, some of which I will mention in a moment. But the idea of this freedom is already prepared in the Pre-Christian Bible. In Book of Numbers 11, the penultimate book of the Pentateuch (the Torah), two tales are strangely interwoven with one another: On the one hand, the chapter tells how for His people, who are hungry while wandering in the desert, YHWH lets quail come down from the sky to feed them; and on the other hand we are told how Moses leads a company of seventy elders of Israel to the sacred revelatory tent which stands some distance outside the people’s desert camp, in order to have them divinely initiated there into some fraction of Moses’ own wisdom in order to enable them to share some of the burden of leading the people with Moses. Two of the chosen ones stay behind in the camp, but when the divine spirit comes down on the ones in the tent, at the same time it comes down on the two in the camp also. While his assistant Joshua gets angry hearing the news, Moses keeps cool about this and says: „If only all the LORD’s people were prophets, and that the LORD would put his spirit on them!“ (Numbers 11,29) The reason why this is interwoven with the quail story is because quail are certainly not ritually pure food according to the law that Israel in the situation described by Book of Numbers has already received; but if God Himself clearly signalizes you so, everything can safely be eaten. That God at any time may bypass his own general rules is the theological joint motive behind quail from sky and „irregular“ prophesy as depicted in Numbers 11. This is what gives the Israelites their „Deuteronomistic“ freedom from „Priestly“ rigidness.

Standing in this heritage, Jesus certainly never commanded his disciples „not to eat meat“. Jesus was fervently against asceticism: „For John (the Baptist) came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‚He has a demon‘; the Son of Man (Jesus) came eating and drinking, and they say, ‚Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!‘ Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.“ (Matthew 11,18-19; Luke 7,33-35) In Mark 7, Jesus declares all foods clean: „Listen to me, all of you, and understand: There is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.“ (Mark 7,14-15) This is clear enough, isn’t it? Luke narrates the scene in which the resurrected one appears to his disciples like this: „While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, he said to them, ‚Have you anything here to eat?‘ They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate in their presence.“ (Luke 24,41-43) As if a slice of bread would not have been impressive enough. After Easter, Jesus’ anti-asceticism even turns into full-blown „anti-spiritualism“, it seems here in Luke.

The Exorcism of the Gerasene Demoniac (Mark 5,1-20; Matthew 8,28-34; Luke 8,26-39), also known as the Miracle of the (Gadarene) Swine or the Exorcism of Legion (the name the demon is identified with in Mark and Luke), narrates how Jesus forces a demon to leave a man and drive into a large herd of swine instead, causing the animals to run downhill into the Sea of Galilee and drown themselves. „A Jesus, killing two thousand pigs?“ This tale has become a particular major point of contention in discussions about the relationship between Christianity and the animal-rights idea. The story was explicitly interpreted by the two most influential theologians of western Christianity, Saint Augustine and, consequently, Thomas Aquinas, to mean that Christians have no duties towards animals. Augustine writes: „Christ himself shows that to refrain from the killing of animals and the destroying of plants is the height of superstition: He judged that there is no common right between us and the beasts and trees, therefore he sent the demons into a herd of swine and withered with a curse the tree on which he found no fruit; of course, neither the pigs nor the tree had sinned.“ (Augustine, „The Catholic and the Manichean Ways of Life (De moribus ecclesiae catholicae et de moribus Manichaeorum)“, Book 2 (De moribus Manichaeorum), chapter 17, paragraph 54, Migne PL 32 p. 1368) Two observations are important in order to understand what is really going on here. First: Mark and Luke say that the demon confessed his name to be „Legion (for we are many)“. It’s precisely „legiòn“ in the original Greek – but „legio“ is a Latin word, not a Greek one, and you know what it means. Matthew took that out because he was anxious about provoking the Roman occupiers of the Near East so drastically. To drown all those Roman soldiers like a herd of demonized pigs – what a „splatter“ fantasy! So, the author hardly reflected on animal rights when he wrote this (probably shortly after 70 CE, the gory destruction of the Jerusalem temple through the troops of Titus) – his brain was under adrenaline.

Second: If you cast a very philosophical glance on Augustine’s position, you might find that in the context his overall theology and philosophy, to eat animals reminds you that you are a „structural“ sinner, which is even more important than not to eat animals – unless you have become able to remember your sinfulness without butchery. But if you prefer to harbor a healthy mistrust against the solitaire motivational force of lofty philosophy, you might rather turn your eyes to the following aspect. Look to the title of the text in which Augustine propagates his opinion on steaks: „About the customs of the Manichaeans, compared to the customs of the Catholics“. The author was still relatively young when he wrote this. Not too long ago from this, he had been a Manichaean himself for a couple of years. So here very likely we observe the typical zeal of a convert. The Manicheans were heavily influenced by thought patterns of Gnosis, and they seem to have been consequent vegetarians or even vegans. Fighting the Manichean heretics, Augustine condemns „their“ vegetarianism. Now you start to recognize that in theology – pardon, of course I mean: in the HISTORY of theology! – very often things strive to make the impression of being all about sublime truths, while in reality it’s almost all about who is your friend and ally and who is your enemy and „contrast supplier“. And Augustine squinted into both directions here: He was not exclusively focused on the Manichaeans as his opponents, rather he also tried to actively please the ones he needed for his personal career as well as for the historical career which he imagined for the church as a whole. When Augustine was born, „Constantinian Turn“ did not yet lie so far back in time. Mainly during the second decade of the fourth century CE, the church abruptly emerged out of an era of persecution and all of a sudden found itself promoted to a super-important imperial Roman institution. The reason for this was that emperor Constantine recognized the fruitlessness of his predecessor Diocletian’s attempt to stabilize the ailing Roman Empire by suppressing rising Christanity and performed a 180-degree political turn, now aiming at fully integrating church into proper Roman-ness instead of fighting the Christians any longer. This whole process was still very much in the doing when Augustine was a young man. When he wanted to become a bishop (hagiographic tradition claims he didn’t want, but who knows), what he aimed at would have been a newly established sort of imperial-Roman high-ranking public office of universal societal significance. Meat was a traditional status symbol of the Roman upper class, the milieu a Christian bishop since about 320 CE was supposed to be part of, and this influential societal class would not have been amused to hear meat-eating prohibited. Moreover, if you look more closely to the Gerasa/Gadara scene in particular: If butchery would not be the central theme in this story, alternatively then its focus would clearly have to be anti-Roman – which possibility had to be thoroughly rejected because young Augustine was an imperial-Roman careerist. Ergo, the Gerasa/Gadara scene had to be about the topic „don’t care too much about animals“.

The core of authentic Jesus’ program doubtlessly included a radicalized idea of nonviolence. While the „Ten Commandments“ in fact only demand to abstain from „murder“, Jesus really turns against any form of violence in one’s way of living. It’s very natural to assume that Jesus, who as a radical Deuteronomist didn’t assign priority to temple sacrifice anyway, would have reacted to the topic of animal slaughtering by asking whether this is really necessary for human nutrition or other needs. In his societal environment there clearly was a strong and long-standing cultural consensus that meat-eating was not „necessary“. A lot of highly revered saintly ascetics renounced it. Of course Jesus might already have had his own version of „Augustine’s problem“, in the sense that precisely some of his theological opponents were ideological vegetarians or vegans, especially the sect of the Essenes. In his work „Peri tou pánta spoudaîon einai eleútheron (Quod omnis probus liber sit)“ (12,75), important ancient Hellenistic-Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria, an approximate contemporary of Jesus, says that the Jewish sect of the Essenes does not sacrifice living beings (ou zôa katathýontes); obviously they maintained that the sacrifices „polluted“ the temple. But Jesus would probably (hopefully) have handled such a challenge in a little bit more spiritually really mature a manner than Augustine did: The mere fact that the Essenes strongly promoted veganism would not have led him to reactively condemn it.

Another interesting point for our topic refers to the role of shepherds in the Bibel. The remark Genesis 13,7, the whole relationship between Jacob and his father-in-law Laban, starting with the scene in Genesis 29,1-10, where a sophisticated regulation against abuse and theft of water reveals that the herdsmen are not the owner of the livestock, the word of Pharaoh to Joseph in Genesis 47,6, and also Jeremiah’s verses 13,20, 23,1-4 and 25,34-36 attest to the circumstance that the Pre-Christian Bible was written in a time when it had already become standard that the herdsmen were but subordinate employees of the herd-owner; to own a herd made a man rich, which means he would never have led his animals on the pasture himself, but had a number of servants for that task. This is why the kings of Israel are compared to shepherds (e.g. in 2Sam 5,2) in order to demonstrate their responsibility towards YHWH. So, when in the New Testament the shepherd appears as a Christ-given paradigm for Christian life on earth, for example in Mark 6,34 / Matthew 9,36, Mark 14,27 / Matthew 26,31, Luke 2,8-20 (the famous Christmas scene) and John 10,2-16, this seems in fact to contradict any assumption of immediate evidence that human responsibility for creation is compatible with making a sort of use of it which does not abstain from killing or exploiting animals, and therefore mistreating them – because from a Christian perspective human beings are never in an ultimate sense the owners of their flocks who can do with them whatever they want in order to draw pleasure from their possessions. The New Testament does in fact seem to say that the latter would be a grave misunderstanding of the famous (or, in the ears of some, rather infamous) commissioning articulated in Genesis 1,28: „Fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion…“ Once again we should look back to the fact that Genesis is a relatively young book. One could go as far as to imply that already the Deuteronomists themselves had the clear understanding that their theology was the older one, compared to Priestly theology – with the old book of Deuteronomy making at least one theological point that does not seem to smoothly match Genesis 1,28 (with Genesis being a theologically pretty much „mixed“ book and Genesis 1 being the Deuteronomist creation account, however overformed by a Priestly final redaction of the whole book as we have it today). The peculiar point of Deuteronomy I talk about here is its animal welfare option. „If you come on a bird’s nest, in any tree or on the ground, with fledglings or eggs, with the mother sitting on the fledglings or on the eggs, you shall not take the mother with the young. Let the mother go, taking only the young for yourself, in order that it may go well with you and you may live long.“ (Deuteronomy 22,6-7) „You shall not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain.“ (Deuteronomy 25,4) For my taste, one can virtually feel how the Deuteronomists loved to irritate the „butchering“ Priests with regulations like these.

Other Bible portions often quoted in discussions about vegetarianism and veganism in the Bible are Simon Cephas-Peter’s vision of being allowed to eat „unclean“ animals in Acts of the Apostles 10,9-16, or 1Timothy 4,1-5: „Now the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will renounce the faith by paying attention to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons, through the hypocrisy of liars whose consciences are seared with a hot iron. They forbid marriage and demand abstinence from foods, which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth. For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected, provided it is received with thanksgiving; for it is sanctified by God’s word and by prayer“; but all who are really theologically and biblically experienced know that these passages are but of subordinate importance. However, they underpin that the most important aspect in true Christian mindset is always to stay firmly non- and anti-ideological.

So far as to the Bible – but what did early Christians, and all Christians of older epochs, do in practice? The „semi-orthodox“, yet important Christian philosopher Origen (185-254 CE) in his work „Contra Celsum“ quotes Celsus commenting on vegetarian practices among Christians he had contact with. And Augustine admits that those Christians who „abstain from both meat and wine“ are „without number“ („On the Morals of the Catholic Church“, 33)

Vegetarianism has always continued to be a characteristic of many Christian monastic rules, particularly of the very strictly secluded Carthusians, the nearly as strictly encloistered Cistercians (high-medieval reform branch of the Benedictines, including the even later secession of the Trappists), and the over one century younger mendicant orders of the Carmelites and the Franciscans. In all these cases, however, the regular (non-fasting) diet included the full range of dairy products, eggs and egg products and even fish, because fish was defined as something essentially different from meat – and all these elements of nutrition were also regarded as health-relevant now. By the High Middle Ages, theology had developed to a point to include health issues, because the human body as something given by the divine creator had to be faithfully preserved and kept in good condition. This is a whole class of arguments which you basically don’t find prior to the twelfth century CE as part of the basic motivation for doing or avoiding anything. The most radical Rome-supervised order with regard to the practice of veganism were probably the Franciscan-inspired „Minims“ (Ordo Minimorum, abbreviated O.M.), founded by Saint Francis of Paola in the fifteenth century. In addition to the standard three religious vows of chastity, poverty and obedience, the rule of the Minims includes the unique vow that „our food, for all our life’s time, shall be lenten-like (Latin: quadragesimalis)“, which means perpetual abstinence from all meat (here logically including fish), all dairy products and eggs – except in case of grave illness and by order of a physician (Rule, chapter 5, paragraph 9).

Overall, however, the most interesting church-historical point concerning our topic certainly is that we see our „Augustine’s pattern“ continue and repeat: Religious vegetarianism again and again turns out to be a distinctive feature of some of the opponents of the victorious Roman church and theology – and for that reason becomes largely downplayed; although this does not entail always the same degree of branding the „dissenters“ with the label of being downright „heretics“. The Manichaeans were certainly Gnostic „heretics“; while the corresponding „baddies“ in our next example were not. The most dramatic return of what I have named „Augustine’s pattern“ can be pinned down to the Synod of Whitby (664 CE). After the end of antiquity’s Roman Empire, European Christianity for about one century largely survived in Ireland, thus constituting the then influential Celtic Church. Again this is a topic of its own which does not allow us to go into all of its interesting details here. However, after about one century of utter cultural and civilizational crisis the church of Rome’s influence over all of continental Europe slowly regained strength. When the multitude of predominantly small Anglo-Saxon kingdoms on the isle of Great Britain were about to be converted to Christianity, this mission turned out to become a race between the Celtic church, advancing from the northwest, and the Roman church, arriving from the south. The Synod of Whitby became the showdown. When king Oswiu of Northumbria declared that he would „no longer dare to oppose Saint Peter“, that was the Celtic Church’s ultimate disaster. We don’t know whether the pope’s men had just more money with them, but that was the beginning of a ruthless Roman campaign against all distinctive features of the Celtic Church – among which was the fact that the celtic monks’ monastic rule, the Rule of Saint Columban, obliged the monks to veganism – „vegetables, beans, flour mixed with water, together with the small bread of a loaf, lest the stomach be burdened and the mind confused“, to be taken in the evening (chapter 5) -, while the „Roman“ monastic Rule of Saint Benedict is somewhat more flexible with regard to all merely external features of being a monk: „We believe it to be sufficient for the daily meal (refectio), whether it takes place at the sixth or at the ninth hour (high noon or three p.m.), at all months, that there are two cooked dishes (pulmentaria cocta), because of the weaknesses (infirmitates) of the different individuals, so that he who can not eat of the one may be nurtured by the other. (…) If any fruit or fresh vegetables are available, a third part may be added. Let a good pound (libra propensa) of bread suffice for the day, whether there may be only one meal or breakfast (prandium) and supper (cena) also. If they are going to have supper, the cellarer (cellerarius) shall reserve a third of that pound, to be given to them at supper. If heavy work was done, it will be in the assessment (arbitrium) and power of the abbot, if it is expedient, to add something, but prior to any overindulgence (crapula) it must be removed, so that the monk will never be caught by indigestion; because nothing is so opposed to the Christian character as overindulgence, as our Lord says: ‚See to it that your hearts be not burdened with overindulgence‘ (Luke 21,34). Boys of minor age shall not be served the same quantity, rather less than the older ones, and served in all simplicity (parcitas). All must always and totally abstain from eating meat of four-footed (quadrupedis) animals, except the sick who are very weak.“ (RB chapter 39) So, here we learn that for meat-eating a potential medical indication was seen, mainly because of its caloric density. The latter assumption, of course, has fallen into obsolescence by virtue of a more recent and more truly scientific physiology and pathology. –

I come to conclusions. Jesus’ very fundamental radical-Deuteronomistic theological strategy of universal emancipation does clearly not match with replacing the compulsory sacrificial slaughter of Priestly theology by any structurally likewise mandatory veganism. This is why it is categorically impossible to demand that „a true Christian should have to be vegan“. Nevertheless, there is very good reason for a Christian to be vegan. There are three basic classes of arguments in favor of veganism: animal ethics, ecology, and individual health. Animal ethics is already anchored in Deuteronomy, and it is all the more supported by Jesus’ radical nonviolence. The ecological issue – which I do not have to elaborate on here, as I believe – is to be regarded as the iconic post-modern twist of the biblical responsibility for creation as mandated to humanity by Genesis. And the inclination to care about the relevant health benefits of a wisely implemented veganism, for which meanwhile there is perfectly objective evidence too, is also supported by a strong traditional theological argument, namely that the individual’s physical human body in a sense is the sacred possession of its divine creator and therefore to be maintained accurately.

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